Cover Story

Fear of commitment

Leading academics and immigration lawyers want to drop the requirement that new citizens renounce allegiance to foreign nations and pledge allegiance to the United States

Issue: "America's best & worst," Feb. 1, 2003

A HODGEPODGE OF HUMANITY, 260 strong-red and yellow, black and white-stood before a judge on a rainy day in Baltimore, reciting a pledge of single-minded allegiance: "I hereby declare on oath that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince or potentate, state or sovereignty... "

Onlookers watched, spines tingling, as the oath grew ever more serious: "... that I will support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic ... that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law ... that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion, so help me God."

Moments later, the auditorium erupted in applause and the newly minted Americans turned the place into a gigantic kiss-and-cry zone. New citizens sworn in-like Thavisith Boriboune, a slender Buddhist whose job is installing insulation in Baltimore neighborhoods-spoke happily of their changed status. Mr. Boriboune arrived in the United States with his parents as a little boy, fleeing the communists of Laos. "I always wanted to be a citizen," he confided, but he failed the citizenship test a few years ago. This time, he said with a smile, he passed it.

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The scene was sweet and moving. But if disturbing new trends hold steady, the citizenship ceremony may increasingly become a ritual of irrelevance, a setting for counterfeit commitment.

Leading academics are demanding that the United States stop asking new citizens to "commit." They want to drop the requirement that naturalized Americans renounce allegiance to all other nations. In The Wall Street Journal, law professors Peter Schuck and Peter Spiro recently argued in favor of allowing new citizens to retain old loyalties, and in 1998 Mexico passed a law enabling Americans of Mexican descent to retain or regain Mexican nationality. Countries such as Ireland and the Dominican Republic "no longer denationalize their emigrants when they naturalize here," Profs. Schuck and Spiro noted.

But how can immigrants promise complete allegiance and fidelity to the United States while retaining citizenship and even holding public office in the country they (theoretically) left behind? More ominously, in the event of a war-say, between the United States and Iraq-which country would "dual citizens" from Iraq side with?

One immigration expert says they shouldn't be forced into making that choice. Washington University law professor Stephen Legomsky told WORLD he believes the United States should not obligate dual citizens "to take up arms against one's country of nationality," and points out that since 1907, international law has prohibited countries from requiring anyone to do this. But this law has not always been respected. Some 60 years ago, many Americans who claimed dual citizenship with Japan were caught in Japan after Pearl Harbor-and forced to fight for Emperor Hirohito.

While dual citizenship is becoming more popular, America seems to have lost its ability to Americanize its newest citizens-to instill the love and loyalty so eagerly absorbed by earlier generations of newcomers. A study from the 1990s reveals that half of all Mexican-Americans and Filipinos, after four years in American high schools, were less, not more, likely to identify themselves as Americans.

Others seem determined not to assimilate: An Iranian doctoral student at Harvard found that just one of 10 Muslim immigrants he surveyed felt more allegiance to the United States than to their country of origin. That's in striking contrast to earlier generations of immigrants from Japan and Germany and Italy, who willingly took up arms against the countries they, or their parents, came from. Clearly, America is failing to pass on love of (adopted) country as well as it once did.

We also don't ask as much of would-be citizens as we once did. In recent years, the citizenship test has been "dumbed down." It now includes such questions as "How many states are there?" "What are the colors of our flag?" "Who is the president today?" Test-taking guidelines suggest would-be Americans need pass a mere 60 percent of the questions correctly. Even so, some activists want the test eliminated.

If our failure to Americanize newcomers is one culprit, modern technology is another. Earlier immigrants might never again have seen their former country an ocean away. Modern immigrants can easily keep in touch by telephone, e-mail, and cheap air travel-making it harder to permanently break ties.

Today we share a border with the country that sends us more immigrants than any other: Mexico. And some countries, particularly Mexico, see clear advantages to having a base of influence in the United States-having its citizens living here, and even becoming citizens, but retaining loyalty to their country of origin.


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